Ankara (GPA) – In part four of the Geopolitics Alert series on Turkey, we examine the challenges faced by Erdogan as he seeks to unseat the post-war powers in the Middle East.
You can read the previous entries in the series below:
- Part One: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: A Geopolitics Alert Series
- Part Two: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: Neo-Ottoman Imperialism
- Part Three: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: The AKP Economic Boom and Bust
Turkish Imperialism’s Impact on Regional Geopolitics
The Future of the Anti-PKK Fight
The last several decades have greatly changed the regional political landscape in the Middle East but one thing Turkey will likely always have is a distrust of many of the Kurdish groups in the region which spread through Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. There were hostilities in the past when Syria harbored the PKK cells that launched attacks in southern Turkey but after the PKK/YPG launched their separatist project (with US-backing) Ankara and Damascus can both agree this is unacceptable although they differ on solutions. Ideally, the Turks would want to administer their own buffer zone in northern Syria to cleanse the area of Kurds but they’ll likely have to end up settling on Assad retaking control of the former YPG territory.
After the events of the previous years, Assad will likely be less keen on allowing the Kurds the same level of hands-off administration they previously enjoyed in cities like Afrin where PKK politicians administer some cities. Again, this still isn’t the Turkish dream of northern Syria being the first area integrated into a neo-Ottoman Turkish empire, but there’s about a million percent higher likelihood of Ankara dealing with Damascus before they’d give a hypothetical starving PKK member a single cent. Turkey also regularly launches much less publicized military operations on alleged PKK positions in Iraq which, depending on the day, Baghdad sometimes does or doesn’t consent to.
If these outcomes do shake out they would be pretty close to the desired hypothetical outcome for the Syrian conflict in Tehran. This means that both Turkey and Iran are in a position where they likely realize that, in the end, they will not be the largest power brokers in Syria on either side of the conflict. Yet Turkey under Erdogan, and frankly most Turks if public opinion is to be believed, agrees with every regional neighbor the big issue: the United States must leave the Middle East, stay out of everyone’s internal matters, and put an end to the support of their criminal attack dogs in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Even though currently Erdogan is nowhere near being someone you would call a committed anti-Zionist on the level of a President Assad or Ayatollah Khamenei but even this may gradually change as the Israelis get closer to the Saudis, Turkey’s main regional adversary.
Erdogan Gains from Gulf Kings’ Weakness
Even as Ankara’s focus turns more towards Riyadh, the new fail-son Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has been absolutely showered in arms and money from Washington in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel in the hopes this new coalition will take the crown jewel all the Project for a New American Century Ghouls have been eyeing since 1979: The Revolutionary Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This means that the closer Turkey gets to Iran, the more likely Erdogan is to also become a target of the empire’s proxy groups and states.
This new fight brewing between Turkey and Saudi Arabia isn’t even a hypothetical, it’s already begun. Just like any rich-kid hater who didn’t work for their position, there’s nothing MBS hates more about Erdogan than seeing a competent man not born into wealth do what no Saudi cousin, uncle, nephew, or large son could ever do which is to completely rise from obscurity, smash a CIA-backed deep-state and military bureaucracy that has ruled since the Gladio-era, defy the West on the global stage and manage to do it all in the realm of electoral politics instead of just being born to the right oil and sex slavery magnate in the Gulf. Erdogan is something MBS could never be, a ruthlessly efficient political operator.
Part of the frustration for MBS and the Emiratis began with the rapid growth of Turkish influence with the militants in Syria. Whether it was IS or most other takfiri umbrella alliances, it was Turkish Salafism beating out Saudi Wahhabism for the preferred ideological choice of jihadists and, more importantly, the most reliable source of fighters, cash, and arms (which ironically inevitably included licensed knock offs of the same NATO arms the US supplied the YPG).
The Qatar Blockade Opens a Door for Erdogan
This more covert conflict in Syria went on for some time but Turkish-Saudi tensions boiled over when due to a misstep by MBS, Erdogan saw another chance to appear as a hero of the ummah. I am of course referring to the surprise Saudi blockade of GCC-member Qatar.
Qatar, which exclusively relies on imports for most consumer staples, suddenly found themselves completely blocked off by Riyadh closing their land border with Qatar and closing the airspace into Qatar as Saudi media made threats that violators would be shot down. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is still in the GCC and on slightly better terms with the Saudis, even reported that MBS even contemplated a military operation to overthrow the Emir of Qatar.
The Saudis went on to issue a list of Qatar’s alleged transgressions along with an ultimatum to correct these issues in 24 hours. Among “crimes” included on the list was the existence of Qatar’s state-run Al-Jazeera news outlet, ties between the Qatari state and the Muslim Brotherhood (a Salafist Islamist party), and the fact that Qatar maintained any relations to Iran despite the two nations sharing the rights to the world’s largest natural gas field.
All of these demands were immediately deemed ridiculous by anyone familiar with the situation on the Gulf Peninsula but they had all been made essentially right after Trump had visited Riyadh to inaugurate a “counter-terrorism center” where many analysts speculate the US President approved the blockade under the impression that it was somehow Qatar alone responsible for Salafist terrorism with their partners in the MB, along with senior members of organizations including Hamas (although often at Israel’s behest but this is a topic for another day) and the Afghan Taliban.
Saudi Hypocrisy on Extremism
What makes this line of reasoning so ridiculous is the fact that all of these organizations have also been on Saudi payrolls within very recent history and used to pursue Saudi policy goals across the world in any nation their radical young men could get to where the conditions would allow the creation of terrorist militias. This has been the case with Saudi Arabia for decades with money going to the MB, Hamas, the PLA, former Palestinian resistance groups with most efforts focused on Israel, and countering the idea of the Islamic Revolution that had taken root in Iran.
Soon these efforts became global and along with a new level of approval of Wahhabism among Western governments that saw it as an effective tool to fight communism in not just the Arab world, but anywhere on earth where the US has “interests” to protect. This meant the Saudis suddenly found they had a free pass to send their hapless young men and all their excess wealth even farther abroad to regions like North Africa, East Asia, and Europe (where extremism is bred in Saudi funded schools and mosques). Many of these jihadist franchises were started by men who at the time were just plucky young upstarts with names like Osama Bin Laden who traveled to exotic locales like Kosovo to spread Salafist extremism against communists and Christians (which Erdogan also reflects on fondly). The Saudis even loved the MB up until around 2011 when the Arab Spring in Egypt showed the Saudi monarchy they could be replaced by a group that has similar views but has the key differentiating factor of a sheen of democratic legitimacy (much like the AKP).
As for the issues of Al-Jazeera and support for Hamas, the Saudis are clearly driven by the major changes to their policy towards Israel, making them even more unpopular across the Arab world in exchange to sell a nation’s soul to Washington. Anecdotally, it seems as if most of Al-Jazeera’s coverage lines up with Saudi positions but surprisingly the one thing Qatari-owned media has not done is repeat the new line on Israel from Riyadh. As MBS works to build his grand coalition against Iran, he can’t have a member of the GCC – the organization that was his own dumb idea – not rushing to sign up to cut all ties with Iran and prepare for war.
This is the corner Qatar found themselves in overnight with even Trump seemingly echoing Saudi talking points even with a crucial and busy US military base located in Doha. Trump very well may have encouraged this split with Qatar but he clearly had no clue what he was doing if he did and the US President, had once again, likely flown off the cuff while sundowning and accidentally reversed another major US foreign policy priority. Much like Erdogan convincing Trump that Syria was a stupid venture, MBS also realized that if you show this simple man in charge of history’s largest empire some gold things, a building with his name on it, and stage a prime photo op; the man is all yours.
Qatar as a neo-Ottoman Experiment
This flattery apparently worked for the Qatar blockade but Doha soon found help in multiple places that have allowed the Emir to hold out to this day. Predictably, Iran was first to send aid in the form of tankers full of foodstuffs to the country with absolutely no agriculture. The surprise second nation to step up was, you guessed it, Turkey which inked a trade and transportation investment deal with Qatar and Iran in under a week from the start of the blockade.
If the breakneck speed with which the Saudi blockade failed wasn’t embarrassing enough, Turkey followed up their trade deal with a commitment to constructing a new military base in Qatar which now holds around 5,000 Turkish troops. It was likely this decision by Ankara that did end up saving Doha from any potential violent (but also probably hilariously inept) Saudi attempt at regime change.
The Turkish military may not be ranking in the top 5 globally anytime soon, it is still a NATO army, and the second largest in the organization to boot which had to leave the Saudis with at least some second thoughts. After all, the Saudi military’s current major military operation is in Yemen where a bunch of the poorest of the poor have been blockaded in an open-air prison for years now but still manage to send every Saudi-hired African merc heading for the hills (since Riyadh has no real army of their own) and regularly manage to blow up critical Saudi infrastructure with outdated rockets or just consumer drones with C-4 taped to them. The Turkish military may often be inept, even more so considering all the qualified members purged since 2016, but the Saudi military is on a totally different level to the point of being a joke. Their one war with their poorest neighbor has been a complete failure which should leave a lot of doubts about what they’d do to US-armed Qatar, NATO member Turkey, and the whole issue of the US base in Qatar.
If you think after these public embarrassments served up by Turkey, that a rational man like MBS (or any even moderately intelligent adult), might pause and contemplate a better strategy for Turkey or to seek a way to work with them and pull them away from the Resistance Axis and Qatar. After all, many Turkish and Saudi interests do still align but the division of the spoils is disputed, so it would only make sense to seek common ground.
The Khashoggi Affair
Instead, MBS decided the best next move was to have a Washington Post columnist literally nobody would’ve known murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and chopped into pieces as a body double tried to fool security cameras that the writer actually left!
That’s right, we’ve arrived at Erdogan’s ultimate own of MBS. An event that truly highlights how much smarter and savvier the Turkish President is than the Crown Prince literally picked by his father, a man with severe dementia (likely from generations of inbreeding). I am of course referring to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the proceeding multiple week media frenzy handled by Erdogan with the skill of a man who knows how the media works. MBS thinks public photo ops in mom jeans are endearing, but Erdogan knows the media, and he knows they want blood, even more so if the blood is a “colleague’s.”
Why the Saudis were so stupid to kill Khashoggi in a rival nation that everyone knows is a massive surveillance panopticon and always has been. Yet they did it anyway, and thanks to Turkish paranoia, Turkish intelligence (MIT) had CCTV video of every moment from when 15 Saudi nationals (including a top adviser to MBS) landed in Istanbul to their drive to the consulate, their pathetic body double stunt, and the eventual ride back to the airport. Turkey also claimed to have the consulate bugged for sound, which wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in the world of espionage, even more so in a place like Erdogan’s Turkey.
Erdogan released all this material in a slow daily drip to keep the Khashoggi story in the headlines and further alienate the Saudis. Surprisingly this actually worked to some extent and soon US media was finally questioning the new Crown Prince’s competence. Initially, most of the outrage was confined to US media, including the Washington Post where Khashoggi wrote, about how brave journalists making 6 figures are and what benefits their amazing truth-telling has for the world. This changed as Erdogan released more details about the murder and even claimed he’d played the audio from the consulate for allied leaders.
The anti-Saudi Backlash
Soon there was a period of general anti-Saudi outrage which even managed to result in the US Congress voting on whether to continue supplying arms for the war in Yemen. In fact, even most politicians were finally out for some sort of blood (likely a palace coup) for Saudi crimes except for Donald Trump who pulled the classic “they investigated themselves and found no wrongdoing” line we all know and love from our American police departments when they murder someone.
Obviously the Yemen war didn’t end and the Saudis aren’t sanctioned which was pretty much always to be expected but it does seem Erdogan did score some type of victory. Before the whole Khashoggi affair, MBS had been on a recent PR tour which included stops in the US to meet universally beloved figures like Mark Zuckerberg. But now? The crown prince seems to have almost completely removed himself from the public eye and we have yet to see another stunt like Khashoggi or MBS’ face at all it seems.
Turkey’s war with Saudi Arabia is still far from over, with both countries primarily attacking each other in the financial and propaganda realms now. It’s hard to make a judgment call on this but it sure seems as if Erdogan won the propaganda war since MBS has essentially gone into hiding. Even with Saudi state efforts to discourage investment in Turkey, pressuring private companies to avoid Turkish business, and even having the nerve to criticize Turkey for bombing PKK positions in Iraq as if Riyadh isn’t responsible for a list of crimes just as long as Turkey’s; a country that definitely doesn’t place a high value on journalistic freedom.
Either way, the end result of all these Saudi spats with the Turks have all ended with Riyadh looking foolish. The fact that MBS has disappeared should be seen as evidence that Erdogan is winning the struggle for authority over right-wing Islamism. Turkey now holds a higher role than the Saudis when it comes to addressing global Muslim affairs even acting as the only Muslim nation to denounce the State Department lies about the treatment of the Uighur minority in China (although both Turkey and Saudi Arabia probably played some role in the initial funding of extremists).
It’s unclear where this fight will go in the future but the recent normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, the GCC has given Erdogan yet another chance to make a public spectacle. This show has already started with Erdogan making some more of his semi-regular comments in support of Palestine as well as threatening to cut diplomatic ties with the UAE.
This habit of the GCC nations to constantly trip over their own dicks directly benefits Erdogan’s image outside of Turkey but it shouldn’t be assumed the public fights with Israel and friends are helping Erdogan at home. With all of the other pressures on the average Turkish citizens, fighting with the other Salafist nations for the role of lead terror-funder during economic and health crises could prove unsustainable. In tomorrow’s installment (which will be the last) we will investigate the possible effects of these PR victories paired with Turkey’s domestic situation to speculate on several possible outcomes for the AKP in the near future.
Image: The Kremlin
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.